Evolution in the Third Culture

May 11, 2006

 While burning the midnight oil, as they say, I wrote this paper as my final report in my anthropology class. It's long, laborious but if you are patient enough to withstand the onslaught of grammatical errors and scientific terminology I think it will be worth it to understand how important the Third Culture really is to current intellectual thinking. 


Evolution in the Third Culture

There are a group of scientists and thinks in the empirical world who have gathered together to ask one another the questions they have been asking themselves. These scientists and empirical thinkers are those who are literally pushing the limits of understanding the natural world and who speak and write directly to the public intellectual. In a foundation created by literary agent John Brockman, evolutionary scientists George C. Williams, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Dawkins, Brian Goodwin, Steve Jones, Niles Eldridge and Lynn Margulis, write essays back and forth discussing their areas of expertise and how and where current evolutionary theory is going and what it means for the world. This is about the collaboration that amalgamates in the book The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution.

While I have mentioned only those scientists and thinkers in the evolutionary world, intellectuals from other fields such as psychology and philosophy to the mathematical sciences of artificial intelligence and astrophysics. Each of these types of thinkers are explaining our realm of existence for the same reason in different ways. But most importantly they communicate to one another and meld one another's ideas together.

George C. Williams in his essay A Package of Information begins with his own personal growth into the area of evolution. He contrasts the ideas and perspectives of evolution of his professor at University of Berkeley, Ledyard Stebbins, whom at the time “was the world's primary expert in evolution with respect to all things botanical”, with that of the writer who truly inspired Williams to evolutionary ideas, Theodosius Dobzhansky and his book Genetics and the Origin of the Species. It was these interactions and further studies, from his theoretical obsession with the “evolution of senescence – the decline in adaptive performance with age” to his 1957 paper about a model of natural selection between families, that resulted in Adaptation and Natural Selection, the book-length publication which thrusted Williams into being a prominent figure in evolutionary studies. However, according to other prominent figures, he's very undervalued for this work. It shocked Niles Eldridge and John Maynard Smith when they found out that Williams had trouble with getting grand support for his research as well as not being elected to their National Academy.

Further along in Williams essay he discusses about how he had been influenced by Richard Dawkin's ultra-Darwinian ideas about the gene as well as the “meme,” a single unit of cultural information. It was interesting to watch Williams compare the meme concept to information theory with an example involving Don Quixote. However, Williams ends with the most important note of where these evolutionary ideas should be reaching when they aren't efficiently enough; nurses and those in the medical research labs. Williams doesn't discuss it explicitly but one of the revolutionary discoveries in regards to AIDs/HIV research was how the virus evolved within a victim's body. Essentially, when a person becomes infected with HIV they are immediately put on a host of drugs that are theoretically supposed to suppress further infection. However, medical research combined with evolutionary ideas revealed that the drugs did quite the opposite, they were making the infection worse by forcing the virus to adapt to a new environment; where once adapted the virus could become even more infectious. When medical researchers realized this the took the patients off the drugs and remarkably the HIV strain evolved again, but to a normal inner-human ecosystem. It's as if they used the evolution of the HIV strain against itself. It is because of this that there is a process by which HIV infected patients go on long periods of medicinal use then off for awhile, and then back on when the HIV strain is more receptive to the drugs. It's because of this that HIV infected patients might possibly be able to live for several more years.

However, evolutionary ideas sometimes do not always mix well with other systems, or even with other evolutionary ideas. This is noticed quite obviously as Stephen Jay Gould writes in The Pattern of Life's History. He and Richard Dawkins have been having a feud over how to look at evolution. Dawkins subscribes to the microevolutionary belief that the gene can reveal all there is to understand about humanity whereas Gould subscribes to more macroevolutionary ideas. Dawkins talks about “replicators” and “vehicles” whereas Gould punctures traditional evolutionary ideas such as he did in the paper “The Spandrels of San Marco an the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critque of the Adaptationist Program.” It's simply astonishing how elegant Gould takes an observation of pendentives under the dome of a cathedral to enlighten him about what's wrong with the adaptationist paradigm.

The Gould-Dawkins feud is potent with stubborn views. Gould calls Dawkins's approach to evolution as “hyper-Darwinism” and explicitly says when and where Dawkins is wrong. But despite Gould's scientific reservations about Dawkin's hyper-Darwinism he nonetheless considers Dawkins “the best living explainer of the essence of what Darwinism is all about.” And that's very important to note. That despite dynamic disagreements between scientists, there is always a common ground each of them tailor to – the pursuit of knowledge. Gould's expansive essay is followed, of course, by Richard Dawkins's essay on his favorite of subjects – genes.

In Dawkin's A Survival Machine he painfully discusses of his wish that if only Darwin had read Mendel we'd be in a much richer time of evolutionary discovery. If only Darwin could get passed “blending” and other mystifying concepts to him that we might have arrived at kin selection and Dawkin's “selfish genes” so much earlier. Dawkins then gets into the meat of his ideas by introducing the concept of reductionism, particularly the two competing perspectives of reductionism. One type, as philosopher Daniel Dennett considers it, “greedy reductionism” – a term that originated in Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea to describe a type of reductionism that explained away things instead of reducing things in order to gain further understanding of them. It's this type of reductionism that Dawkins is sometimes blamed for. However, Dawkin's considers his form of reductionism as simply being hierarchical or “step-by-step reductionism.” Where you explain concepts piece by piece in whatever direction they might lead instead of doing what greedy reductionism (or what Dawkins's considers “precipice reductionism”) tries to do, is explain and link everything together reductionalistically. Or to use Dawkins's example, trying to link Shakespeare's poetry to the mathematical dance of nerve impulses. Where greedy reductionism jumps steps – or leaps entire stairs of steps – hierarchical reductionism takes it one step at a time. It's the hierarchical reductionism that Dawkins's believes science should utilize.

What I believe to be phenomenally interesting here is the link of philosophical concepts and how they interact and effect scientific inquiry. Dawkins's references Daniel Dennett's, one of worlds leading philosophical thinkers, books which in turn references Dawkin's evolutionary concepts of memes, the extended phenotype, as well as the phrase “the evolution of evolvability”. It's very important to meld both disciplines together in order to form more cogent scientific papers or accurate philosophical arguments.

Another interaction of science and philosophy is made by Lynn Margulis in her essay Gaia is a Tough Bitch. Gaia is a term to describe the concept that suggests that the entire earth acts as one massive self-regulating organism, or as Margulis considers it, one massive ecosystem with competing sub-ecosystems. However Gaia is an ancient concept from Greco-Roman mythology which has been adopted and transformed to be religious in nature, and then adopted by scientists to describe the interplay of complex macrobiological systems with philosophers with it's transformation the entire way. Margulis contrasts her perceptions of James Lovelock's rigorous application of science to Gaia theory, with her own ideas about biology. For her, it was tough to understand the concept as a whole. In a way, it pokes more holes in biology than punctuated equilibrium did for adaptation, so it's understandable for her to illicit some frustration. She accepts some explanations but derides some major ones, principally the idea that Earth can be viewed as an organism itself. She says, “I disagree with this phraseology. No organism eats its own waste.” The distinction is clearly made here; while Earth may have some systems which regulate other systems in the same way the systems of the human body complement one another, Earth could still not be viewed as an organism whether it's truly and perfectly self-regulating or not. Either way, the Gaia Hypothesis is one of the more recent explosive explanations for the world and it has roots in philosophy, mythology, and of course science. Darwin's dangerous idea, to use Dennet's title, was much in the same way linked to philosophy – in the form of naturalist theology – and to relentless scientific inquiry.

We are beginning to see a delicious interplay of intellectual thinking in the empirical world which utilizes each other's resources whether it be in medical science, evolution, or philosophy, in order to ripen the fruits of intellectualism. It's important to realize and accept this recent behavior among those thinkers in the empirical world to bring knowledge from it's highly specialized forms to mingle with one another. Perhaps, this was all inevitable. This consilience, as biologist Edward O. Wilson considers it, seems to be instinctual – natural. To put it metaphorically, could the highly specialized forms of thought, which range from evolutionary biology and genetics to philosophical Gaia theories, are conglomerating and inter-relating in the hopes that they produce new and more advanced ideas? In essence, isn't this just evolution on a more grander philosophical scale? I think so, and it will be thoroughly exciting to see how these ideas evolve.


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